The cow lay across the dirt road, legs splayed out, hooves reaching for the sky. My journey searching for the perfect beach in Baja was going to be a little delayed.
The road, little more than a track through the desert scrub, was effectively blocked by the bloated beast. I’m not sure how long the cow had been dead, but its belly was so swollen it looked about ready to explode. I was a little hesitant to get out of the car, half expecting to be engulfed by the rotting stench of dead cow. Nothing like a few days in the desert heat to ferment a carcass! So instead I backed my car up about 20 yards and killed the engine. Now what?
My day had started pleasantly enough. I was camped just south of Loreto, in Baja California Sur, surrounded by giant cardon cactus and mesquite. As usual, the October day began clear, sunny and warm. I took my time breaking camp, with no particular place I needed to be that day. All the time in the world, and the entire Baja Peninsula to explore. A perfect day!
Searching For The Perfect Beach
My half thought out plan was to continue making my way south on the Trans Peninsula Highway, to La Paz, on the Sea of Cortez coast and the start of the Cape region of Baja Sur. It didn’t matter what day I reached La Paz. I could take another week to get there if I really wanted. The only thing I needed to do on this stretch of my journey was to look for the perfect beach.
When you look at photos of Baja on travel websites, beautiful beaches seem to dominate. Almost every coastal town has a picturesque beach, but there really aren’t a lot of towns along the Baja Peninsula. Does that mean that beautiful beaches exist all up and down the peninsula, or do they just build towns where the beautiful beaches are? I was hoping it was the former, because I didn’t want a town beach. I wanted an isolated, hard to get to, pristine, white sand beach all to myself.
And so I found myself driving south on this beautiful, cloudless autumn day, scanning the coast for the distinctive white slash next to the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez. The highway here afforded expansive views of the coastline off to my left. My elevation was high enough to see for several miles south. Every now and then the shoreline was obscured by higher hills where the road turned a little inland, but, for the most part, we stuck to the coast. And suddenly I saw it.
From a hundred feet or so up, I could see a thin ribbon of white dividing the desert from the sea. My beach! No towns, no fish camps, no people. I had to find a way to get to that beach.
The Road To…
The beach had looked to be about a mile and a half from the highway before it was again blocked by a rise of land. I slowed my car to look for a track or dirt path. And about a hundred yards later, there it was. A dusty, narrow strip of road veered off the highway to the left. I figured on better than an even chance it would lead to the coast. I slowed to a crawl and eased off the pavement down the path.
The track was very rough and uneven. It had eroded into the desert so that the edges were one or two feet higher than the road. There was very little room to maneuver if I ran into large rocks or holes. My Volvo had proven to be a great vehicle for rough roads, but it was rear wheel drive. It had it’s limitations, and this track could be one of those limitations.
As I drove further from the highway, the path opened up a little and flattened out. At least now I could steer around some obstacles if I needed.
Just ahead I could see the road fall away. I pulled up and stopped on the crest of a steep drop. The sketchy path dropped down into a gully before leveling out in 20 feet or so. My heart fell. I figured I could get the car down the gully, but I seriously doubted I’d get back up this way again. Do I carry on and hope there’s another way back to the highway, or was this the end of my short adventure? There would be other beaches, other roads to try on my journey south.
In The Absence of Common Sense
After several moments of debate with myself, I decided common sense was the best course to follow. But I chose not to follow it. I got back into my Volvo and took a few deep breaths. No Roadside Assistance to call out here. I wouldn’t even know how to direct them to my location! Shifting the transmission into the lowest gear available, I inched forward and over the edge.
The Volvo’s high clearance kept me from bottoming out on the lip of the gully. The tires gripped the uneven rock and I soon found myself at the bottom of the gully. I had made it in one piece! Now let’s hope there’s another road back to the highway…
The track carried on in the general direction of the coast. Hope returned, along with a renewed confidence that this adventure would end in success. I was surely on the right “track”.
The road rounded a curve and there it was; the dead cow. Bloated and ready to burst. Crap! One damn thing after another. I guess this wouldn’t be an adventure if there weren’t some roadblocks to success. Too bad it was in the form of a dead cow blocking my progress.
I got out and surveyed my situation (again!). About a thousand flies buzzed around the baking bovine, adding to the ambience. It was early afternoon, and the sun stood high above my head. The temperature was in the mid 90’s. Hot. Hot enough to roast a dead cow.
The road here was flat, and the sides were slightly sloped upwards. I walked around the cow and tested the ground. It was gravelly and hard, no problem for the Volvo. I might scrape the undercarriage a little climbing off the road, but it could handle it. There were no large rocks to impede my progress, and I could swing around Bessy and be back on my way. I could smell the ocean.
Back in the car and I skirted the dead beast in no time, with no trouble at all. I was back on the dirt track and approaching a line of palm trees. I hoped the beach was just on the other side of the trees. But it was not to be.
The road smoothed out, and became wide and even. There were tire tracks everywhere. Hmm, this path is a little more traveled than I thought. I passed a neat pyramid of rocks on the side of the road, with a half-inflated balloon tied to the top. That’s odd. A moment later I was driving through palm trees that seemed a bit too manicured for a native palm grove in the middle of the Baja desert.
The End of The Road
When I reached the other side of the trees, I stopped, my mouth agape. Before me was a neat little property, with a small thatched roof home, a little garden, and a family playing soccer in the dirt field next to the beach. Crap!
The family all turned to look as I stopped the car at the end of their drive. The mom and dad both smiled as dad waved at me. I sheepishly waved out my open window as I put the car in reverse. In my embarrassment I didn’t even get out of the car to greet them. I wasn’t sure how to explain in my bad Spanish that I was on a mission; searching for the perfect beach.
As I backed my car up to turn around, my heart sunk, again! I had seen no other road along this sketchy route. That meant I was going to have to find a way to drive back up the steep gully I had come down on the way in. All without a four-wheel-drive. Just me and my rear wheel drive Volvo. Crap!
I drove slowly back through the palm grove with the bewildered family in my rearview mirror. Had I actually stopped and greeted them, they probably could have helped me out of my predicament. But no, once again my silly little ego got the better of me. Just like on my earlier drive down the Baja coast. At least I would learn to swallow my pride on another adventure searching for the perfect beach. But that’s for Part Two…
The Great Baja Depression
I skirted Dead Bessy once more and carried on through the low desert scrub. My heart was beating rapidly as I got closer to the base of the gully. And in no time I was there. The Great Baja Depression. Yet again, I got out of the car and walked to the base of the gully.
The left side was exposed bedrock, about 6 inches higher than the right. The right side was a mixture of exposed rock and packed dirt. I climbed the path, mapping a route for my wheels. My best chance of success was to keep my left tires on the right edge of the bedrock, which would put my right tires on more rock than dirt. And if the tires lost traction on the way up, I was done. This gully wouldn’t let me take a run at it. It was simply to uneven and steep. Slow and low gear was the only way.
From the top I looked down at my old Volvo. “I’m putting my faith in you, old girl,” I whispered. My Volvo had taken me on many excursions, and it was always up for the challenge. But this one was the pinnacle. I swore, if she could get me out of this, then I was going to look after her forever. Premium fuel from now on! And her oil changes would be right on time. I would also be a little less obsessed with searching for the perfect beach at any cost.
Have A Little Faith
Back in the driver’s seat, I turned over the engine. It was so hot. All the windows were rolled down, but sweat dripped down my face like a dripping tap. My tee shirt was drenched. I was some 600 miles down the Baja Peninsula, all by myself, searching for the perfect beach. I had a wallet full of Pesos, 12 rolls of film, lots of fuel in the tank, and not a lick of sense. For the briefest of moments I thought of walking up to the highway and flagging down a car. Maybe a tow truck would happen by, or a big rig with a winch on the front. I filed the idea away, leaving it as a last option if I couldn’t drive out of this gully. That or walking back to that nice family and asking for help.
One more deep breath and I eased the gearshift into low. Foot gently on the gas and I nudged the Volvo forward until the hood tilted up. I felt the rear wheels grab onto the bedrock. A little more gas and the car eased forward and up. I could no longer see the path in front of me. Blue sky filled my windshield and the engine purred. I was climbing the gully!
The Volvo lurched and the steering wheel fought to escape my grip. Suddenly the left side of the car tilted alarmingly up, then dropped hard. The blue sky disappeared, replaced by the desert track. I was out of the gully! I couldn’t believe my good fortune!
Slamming the car into park, I bolted from the driver’s seat and did the Happy Dance. I did not have to abandon my faithful Volvo in the lonely Baja desert, like so many wrecks. My car had performed better than I could have expected, and I was humbled. I placed my palms on the sizzling hot hood and said a silent prayer. From this moment on, I would name my car “Faith”.
I had not found the perfect beach. I hadn’t even found the shoreline! But it didn’t matter in that moment. My car and I were back on a relatively level dirt road. My car! A magnificent Swedish engineering marvel that could move mountains and save me from myself. In that moment I swore that I would never put my dear Faith in such a difficult situation ever again. I promised that my paths would be more carefully considered, and I would always think twice before acting. Solemnly I made a pact with my faithful Volvo that I would always protect her from harm.
A week later I broke that pact.